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THORNTON, Colo. – Todd Riley and his friend were buying drinks at the bar near the main stage of the Route 91 Harvest Festival outside the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas Sunday night when he heard what he thought were fireworks.
The Century Middle School assistant principal and father of three had decided earlier this year that he and his fiancé, Dawn, and a group of friends would head out to Vegas for the festival, one of country music’s biggest events each year.
They’d made more friends on their walk over to the parking lot where the festival was being held and were having a good time. Jason Aldean was on the stage, and the group was right under the stage’s massive sound bar.
“And then you could start hearing. At first it was ‘pop, pop, pop, pop,’ and then it was very quickly followed up by automatic gunfire. And people—just running as fast as they could,” Riley said Wednesday from his home in Thornton, Colo., recounting the beginning of a rain of bullets that would eventually leave 58 people dead and more than 500 injured.
“It sounded at first like it was coming from the street,” he said.
Chaos reigned immediately.
Riley couldn’t find his fiancé, and he and his friend, Tim, were separated from their group. Tim’s girlfriend, Christina, ran through the crowd and took cover with Riley and Tim.
The shooting stopped for a brief moment, and Riley got back up to try and find Dawn.
“I couldn’t find her and the shooting started again. It felt like my leg was burning, and I started yelling for people to get behind the bar because by now I could tell that the shots were coming from above,” Riley said.
The shooting went on for another couple minutes before it stopped again. Riley was separated from Tim, and he still couldn’t find Dawn.
“Most of the people from that area had cleared out … Then the shooting started again and there was a lady running, and she fell to the ground,” Riley said. “The other guy and I saw her and we went over and grabbed her. She was not responsive.”
Riley said he and another man he was hunkered down with tried to find where the woman had been shot, eventually discovering a wound to her shoulder that had penetrated her chest cavity. The two men performed CPR and chest compressions until the woman started spitting blood.
“Then one of the heroes came in. He was a kid,” Riley said. “I say kid, I mean he was 18, early 20s, a yellow striped shirt, running with the wheelbarrow towards the gunfire and asking if there’s anyone injured. And I say I think we have one but I think she’s dead. We grabbed the wheelbarrow, loaded her up, and I started running with her.”
He said they took the woman about a quarter-mile up the road to a group of first-responders.
“Those guys were amazing,” Riley said. “I said I think she’s dead and they didn’t even ask. Three of them just stepped in front of us, formed a human wall with their guns, then the medics came rushing over and grabbed her.”
It wasn’t until that point that Riley says he realized he’d been shot himself.
“They got me behind the police car, and that’s when I realized I couldn’t stand anymore, and I fell into the crowd,” Riley said. “I had no idea why, and one guy tried to put a tourniquet on my leg with his belt. I look down and realize that my leg is bleeding….pretty good, and the other one is just squirting every time my heart pumps.”
“A couple heroes,” Riley called the first-responders at the scene—both civilians and professionals.
“Those people didn’t need to be there. One guy identified himself as a Marine medic and the other lady identified herself as a trauma nurse. They took over, got pressure on my leg and made sure I had a pulse in my foot.”
A woman drove up in a pickup truck, and Riley and others were loaded into it to be taken to a hospital.
“This lady who was in her truck and could have driven off to save herself, she took us,” Riley recounted. “There was so much, so many people that stepped up and, instead of being the coward up in a hidden room shooting down at people who were just there to have a good time, they stepped up and did what was right.”
Riley was sat next to a woman named Cynthia who’d also been shot. He says he put pressure on her wound as her husband put pressure on his.
“I wish I could touch base with her because we spent the next hour and a half together, but I don’t know her last name,” Riley said.
He remembers the trip to the hospital like it’s something out of a war movie.
“They were racing through intersections and honking and blocking traffic and jumping out of their cars so we could get through. And then, as we go by, we’d see them jump back in their car and speed up and race in front of us,” Riley said.
On the way, he got ahold of Dawn.
“She was OK. She was running, and I told her where they were taking me. I said please come to me, please come get me.”
Riley was brought to Sunrise Hospital, which was inundated with hundreds of other victims.
“Those folks—I don’t know how you plan for something like that, what we saw that night,” Riley said. “But each and every one of them, they were amazing. They took charge of their jobs, they did what they had to do.”
Riley says he and Cynthia were put onto the same gurney and taken to a triage room with about seven other people.
“I remember clearly—there was an ICU nurse who was on the floor that they brought in who had been shot through the forearm. They put a tourniquet on her. And her husband was beside her because he had shrapnel in his arm. There were three people in chairs behind us, and there were two people in wheelchairs with leg wounds in front of us,” Riley said.
“The ICU nurse, she’s in so much pain and there’s blood all over the floor around her … That’s when we knew how bad everything was, as they told her, ‘We can’t even get to the pain meds for you right now. We can get the bleeding stopped and we will get with you as quickly as we can.’”
Cynthia was patched up, but Riley was getting anxious.
“By now we’ve been in there for over an hour, and the doctors asked how I was doing. I said, ‘Can I leave?’” Riley said. “They looked at my legs and everything, and he goes, ‘Well we’ve got the bleeding stopped, but I don’t know what’s in your leg.’”
“And I told him that there are people dying around us and he didn’t need to worry about me. He needed to worry about them; they are hurt. And he goes, I can’t stop you, but you’ve got to get checked out as quickly as you can.”
Riley said he checked on Cynthia before leaving the hospital, and both reassured one another they were fine. He then went to find Dawn, but would be immediately halted.
“As I was walking out of the triage room, they were wheeling in the lady that I was doing CPR on,” he said. “They were not moving fast, and she was gray and she was dead. And I walked out into—just shock.”
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies had blocked the hospital off entirely and wouldn’t let anyone in. Family members and friends of victims waited nervously.
“I had a guy come up and ask me how his wife was, and I said, ‘Sir, I don’t know your wife,’” Riley said. “And he goes, ‘I was riding in the truck with you.’ And I said, ‘Cynthia?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, how is she?’ I said she’s going to be fine.”
He tried to go back inside to tell Cynthia her husband was waiting outside, but authorities wouldn’t let him back in.
“And you know, he hugged me.”
He spotted Dawn through the crowd and ran over to her. She told him their friends were safe, and the group went back to their hotel to start to try and process the unimaginable.
Riley got his leg checked out at Swedish Medical Center back in Englewood on Tuesday.
“Those folks were great. Because of Vegas, I didn’t even want to go to an ER—I didn’t think I could bear it. And I went down there and they’re waiting for me and pulled me back into the room and took care of me.”
He has six bullet fragments scattered throughout his left thigh, hamstring, calf, knee and lower abdomen.
“They said that they made sure that none of them are near any major blood vessels and that the best thing to do is that they were going to leave them in, because they said they’d do more damage cutting them out,” Riley said. “You know, my body’s going to heal.”
After a couple of days of reflection, Riley says he has two takeaways after surviving America’s largest mass shooting in more than 100 years.
“The heroes that night—there were so many people doing the absolute right thing,” Riley said. “That kid running with a wheelbarrow back at the gunfire trying to get people out. Every person in and out of uniform who stepped up: The law enforcement, the EMTs, the firefighters, the medical.”
“We were all running and trying to get out, and you know I saw someone, and I did what I could to take care of her and I couldn’t,” Riley continued. “But those folks were stepping up in front of us and they were getting in line, right in between us and where the shots were coming from, to protect us.”
“That’s what the focus should be on. It was amazing.”
And he said that’s why he and his friends had gone to Route 91 in the first place.
“Every one of the musicians, from the newest on the Next Stage, to the main acts, they all came up and had the message that: ‘Look at us, we’re so diverse! We’re all having fun together!”
“Why does it take something like this for us to forget about all the rhetoric? And then you have a coward up hiding in a room shooting down on people … There were so many people who stepped up and were heroes, and did things that they didn’t know they could do or wouldn’t think that they would do. That’s the story. Not a coward up in the 32nd floor.”
And Riley says he still has some loose ends to tie up.
“I haven’t been able to look at the pictures of the people who died yet. I saw some and I just couldn’t look anymore,” Riley said.
He wants to learn Cynthia’s last name so he can reach out, tell her he’s OK and give her a hug. He hopes to thank the first responders and others who helped save people, doing “amazing things.” And he wants to find the family of the woman whom he gave CPR to.
“I want to find the name of the young lady. I want to reach out to her family and let them know that she didn’t die alone. I want to let them know that we were there and we were trying. But she didn’t die alone.”
Riley says the shooting should be a teaching moment for all Americans.
“The thing that this drove home was life is so precious and we need to be focusing on the positive,” he said. “Not one of those responders, not one of the people in the crowd, not me or the guy who is beside me who helped out that lady, none of us were asked, ‘Who did you vote for? Where are you from? What color are you?’”
“Those first responders came from every race, religion, walk of life, and they didn’t care. They were protecting the people that were right there in front of us because we were people.”
Denver7's Kara Van Hoose and Jennifer Kovaleski contributed to this report.